If you don’t know the Swedish band Ghost yet (used to be spelled “Ghost BC” in the US for legal reasons), you might not be paying much attention to metal industry news. They are a rapidly rising star in the metal cosmos: their latest album hit the top of the charts in Sweden and charted no. 8 in the United States (these days, breaking into the top 10 is a rare feat for a non-American metal band), and the band even won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance for their song “Cirice” this past year. They have attracted some controversy for their costume gimmick: their lead singer “Papa Emeritus” dresses as a sort of dark, Satanic “anti-pope,” while the rest of the band call themselves “nameless ghouls” and wear identical masks with dark overtones. The band members seem to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about their Satanic image as an inversion of traditional Christian symbols (literally inverted in the case of the cross that forms a part of the band’s logo). But this Satanic symbolism is only the most superficial layer of a deep practice of inverting values that can be seen throughout the band’s work, not just in their visual imagery, but also in their lyrics, timbre, and even in the formal properties of their treatment of verse material during the guitar solo. Each of these dimensions undermines established associations of evil with dissonance, discord, and ugly harshness in metal music.
Lyrics in lots of Ghost songs flip the binaries of traditional ideologies or mythological tales, in ways that can sometimes seem surprising, even within the metal scene. As Keith Kahn-Harris (2006) and many other scholars have noted, metal culture can be characterised by a willing affiliation with darkness, an oppositional stance towards mainstream values. Much metal music that claims the side of evil, however, does nothing to upset the connotations or associations evil has within traditional (Christian) Western culture. A classic example is Black Sabbath’s title song on their first album, in which Ozzy Osbourne sings about a nightmarish shrouded figure pointing at him, then screams, “Oh God, Please God Help Me!,” still placing the Christian God as a helper figure to save him from evil. And from a different perspective, Venom’s more misanthropic identification with evil itself also maintains traditional associations between darkness, impurity, lust, pain, insanity, and death. Ghost, on the other hand, frequently (even consistently) undermines such associations in their lyrics, depicting Satan and other “evil” figures in lyrics about sweet romance, togetherness, and straightforward righteousness.
This is immediately obvious if one compares the lyrics to songs about Elizabeth Bathory by Ghost and Venom. Venom’s song “Countess Bathory,” from their second album Black Metal (1982), portrays Bathory’s killing of peasant girls and bathing in their blood using language that highlights the temptation (and even gluttony) of the feasts that Bathory supposedly hosted to lure her victims. The song almost sounds like a moral condemnation of the peasant girls when Cronos declares that they “must pay the price.” The Countess is described as a classic ugly witch, who “laughs and sips her wine / her skin doth crack and peel,” who dresses in black. The grim reaper catches up with Countess Bathory at the end of the song and one almost feels like her death is a stroke of justice. A completely different tone is taken in Ghost’s “Elizabeth,” from their 2010 debut album Opus Eponymous. In the first verse Ghost tells us with melodic but slightly eerie vocals that the Countess was an “evil woman / with an evil old soul / piercing eyes emotionless / a heart so black so cold.” But the Chorus throbs with the sweet, yearning melodies of an 80s romance song, and the lyrics are a (weird) love note, fondly addressing the Countess by her first name: “Elizabeth / In the chasm where was my soul / Forever young / Elizabeth.” This chorus always strikes me as kind of a creepy rendition of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” partly because in addition to sharing that line of lyrics, it also shares a sweet yearning quality. Ghost’s Countess Bathory is evil but also a young heartthrob, and one can’t help but hear a loving, hopeful quality to the major chords underneath “You’re still alive, Elizabeth!” (Robert Walser gives a compelling account of similar switching between major and minor inflections in Van Halen’s song “Runnin’ With The Devil.” See Walser 1993, pp. 51-52.)
Other ideological reversals happen in the lyrics of “Square Hammer” and “Monstrance Clock.” “Monstrance Clock,” another song from the band’s sophomore album, describes some kind of ritual, perhaps a black mass, with black candles, smoke, pentagrams, rams’ horns, and a cloaked figure to top it all off. But instead of lyrics about depravity or the grotesque, “Monstrance Clock” describes an “assembled flock” being “cleansed,” with their “minds aligned.” The chorus is a rather calming chant, appealing to the listeners in the audience to “Come together, together as one / Come together, for Lucifer’s son.” Really communal, positive vibes compared to most metal songs about devil worship. A track on the band’s recent Popestar EP (2016), “Square Hammer,” has somewhat vaguer occult allusions (ringing bells, “powers clandestine,” etc.). But “Square Hammer” also has righteous overtones, repeatedly asking the listener “Are you ready to swear, right here right now, before the Devil / that you’re on the square / that you’re on the level / that you’re ready to stand, right here right now.” Normally such exhortations are associated with forthright honesty and trustworthy commitment (thanks to my friend and colleague Milena Schaller for pointing this out to me!). In other words, both of these songs associate devil worship with honorable and just moral values, a sense of community and commitment. Although this could easily be heard either as earnest evangelism or more light-hearted parody, the band’s statements in interviews tend to imply the latter. Either way, these lyrics invert the traditional (im)moral coding of the Left-Hand Path.
This same inversion is repeated in the lyrics of Ghost’s award-winning hit single “Cirice.” Though the lyrics make no overt references to the occult, the video replays many of the tropes of Stephen King’s Carrie: a mysterious girl at a social event at a conservative school is angered, then has an outburst of latent telekinetic powers, shuts the doors of the gymnasium to trap a hostile audience whom she then begins to attack. In “Cirice,” the rampage is cut short when one man unplugs the PA system of the band, implying that perhaps the band’s music powers of the girl Cirice’s abilities. But the lyrics invert the terror or horror of the similar situation in “Carrie,” by sympathetically addressing Cirice: “I know your soul is not tainted / Even though you’ve been told so.” The song’s Chorus tenderly appeals to Cirice, “I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart / I can see through the scars inside you,” with a gentle or even sweet musical setting including classical piano. This endearing sympathy is certainly a far cry from the blood-covered holocaust of Carrie.
“Cirice” uses a fascinating musical inversion in the guitar solo section, in which the home key of the verse material becomes a marker of an exotic altered space. The overall formal structure of “Cirice” is relatively normal: it comes after two verse/chorus cycles, it reuses the verse and chorus riffs, and it is followed by a final climactic chorus. The visuals of the music video align with what Robert Walser identifies as guitar solos’ paradigmatic expressive function of transcending limits (1993, p. 54), depicting a scene in which the audience appear to be possessed by the spirit of the guitar solo and are shaking back and forth, crying, raving, in a spoof of the Pentecostal Christian worship practice of “speaking in tongues.” The guitar solo can be split into two sections, and the beginning of the second section seems to cross a threshold into a climactic space. Three factors mark this threshold: a change of key, a dramatic change in timbre, and the appearance in the video of a man shedding his shirt to reveal that Ghost’s symbol of a G superimposed on an inverted cross has spontaneously appeared on his chest. This section serves as a supernatural, spectacular climax, an exotic altered space where the rules of the mundane world are shrugged off and anything could happen.
These three exotic signifiers disguise the fact that the backing parts for this second section of the solo is simply the verse material in the original key! The solo as a whole features previous song material in the reverse order from earlier: the chorus riffs are used in the first section of the solo, and the verse riffs in the second section. The verse material, and the corresponding D Phrygian Dominant scale, have been defamiliarized by this context, creating a carnivalesque inversion of values in which the “home” key becomes the space of the exotic other, and the pedestrian and staid audience become transfixed and transformed by the power of Ghost’s performance.
In each of these examples, Ghost inverts traditional associations of Satan or other evil figures and icons with harshness, ugliness, wretchedness—in other words, what Julia Kristeva calls the “abject.” Kristeva’s concept of the abject has been used extensively by Keith Kahn-Harris in theorizing transgression in extreme metal music (2007, pages 29 & following), arguing that extreme metal revels in the abject and seeks to control it. Many Ghost songs create an opposite association, making evil or transgressive figures or symbols appear glamorous, dependable, and righteous, all set to music scattered with sweet melodies, smooth and resonant production, and occasional overtones of nostalgia. I wouldn’t say that metal’s close relationship with the abject is over, but Ghost’s inversion of this relationship (with a knowing nod to devoted metal fans) puts a new coat of paint on devilry, and casts a hip aura about the band that is surely part of their growing popularity.